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Christa Uehlinger is an intercultural consultant and coach, working with organizations to help them bridge culture gaps in an increasingly global workplace. Based in Winterthur, Switzerland, she has a broad experience of creating practical cross-cultural programmes for the private and public sector.

Cross-cultural Understanding – a Key to the Global Workplace

AHRMIO : In an increasingly “connected” world, (where we sometimes seem to be all the same) is an understanding and an appreciation of other cultures and societies still important?

Christa Uehlinger (CU) : Yes, even more so in a globalized, interdependent world in which more and more people of different cultures interact – be it in person or virtually. Culture is a powerful underlying force influencing our thinking styles, working styles, perceptions, behaviour, effective co-operation and so on. It is part of our identity and mostly unconscious. One’s own culture is familiar and has become a habit. The way employees are motivated, customers served, negotiations conducted or decisions taken, is always culturally conditioned. Assuming that by globalization we all become the same is neglecting how deeply rooted culture is and how much it shapes us and, in the end our business co-operations.

On the surface, there may be similarities and a certain blending process may be taking place. But a closer, deeper look reveals the diversity. The pull of culture cannot be easily detected. The pressure of globalization may also lead to people remembering their local identities. Culture is an orientation system which shouldn’t be underestimated. The greatest challenge to effective cooperation between people of different cultures lies in the hard-to grasp underlying values – in behaviour’s invisible unconscious background. As long as it is unconscious, culture manages people and their cooperation. One has to be aware that the moment we co-operate with people of different cultures, we are inter-culture – in the middle of a cultural overlap. Intercultural communication and management is about people. It starts with ourselves. Each of us is unique.

AHRMIO : What’s the biggest mistakes that business people make when they are dealing with people in new environments? e.g. lack of cultural awareness, inability to integrate etc.

CU : Working across cultures requires acceptance that one doesn’t know everything and that one must embrace ambiguity – letting go of fixed concepts. When working with people, I observe several faults. Let me mention just a few. First, intercultural communication and skills are often still perceived as “touchy-feely”. Thus, soft factors are unfortunately still seen as not necessary or hardly adding value, although there is tons of research proving this to be wrong. Soft factors might not be as tangible as hard factors, but so what? Does everything need to be tangible and measurable? I say, soft factors are actually very hard and if balanced out with hard factors lead to business advantages. Second, does and don’ts – a list of how to behave in certain cultures – are very popular. They might help a bit;  however, it is just scratching at the surface. Working across cultures effectively cannot be done by using a recipe.

The business world is being clustered roughly into Europe, Asia and US.  Think of Europe and how diverse it is. Think of Asia and see the differences, even within China. There’s no way that a business strategy crafted for an economy in the west is going to translate effortlessly into success in the Indian marketplace. But that’s exactly what many business people expect to happen. Working effectively across cultures requires us to see and work with cultural diversity. Even overlooking tiny differences may have consequences. Fourth, a lack of cultural awareness – either of one’s own culture or other cultures or both, not wanting or not yet being able to see cultural differences and similarities. As a consequence, people act out of their own cultural conditioning, sticking to their comfort zone, inspite of experiencing a cultural overlap, not being aware or even neglecting that from this point onwards an intercultural approach is of the essence. Working across cultures requires us no longer to evaluate other behaviours as good or bad, but to accept them as just  different approaches; to realise that one’s own world view is just one of many and to use these different approaches for better results. Actually, the potential of culture lies in the unknown.  

Additionally, what I often miss is people-orientation, with its related interpersonal and communication skills, such as respecting another person, having empathy, listening, observing etc. In short: treating another person like a human being, no matter what his/her cultural background is.

AHRMIO : Do you advise organizations to become deliberately diverse in their geographical and ethnic make-up and are we any good at doing this ?

CU : Culture is not an additional factor one has to allow for, it is the context within which all business transactions take place. It‘s the dominant one. So, my advice is first and foremost to accept the relevance of culture in working together and to take a deliberate, conscious strategic approach.  An organization needs to invest in people and to develop their intercultural competence, since business in an international environment requires a different mind-set. Business people should recognise that culture influences themselves, as well as others, and they should be able not only to overcome the barriers raised by those differences, but also to leverage them for higher performance and to see the similarities. There is no right or wrong, good and bad etc.; there are only different approaches on how to do business. And as human beings we’re not very good at it. Culture is part of our identity and defines our comfort zone. We need curiosity, flexibility, openness, tolerance for ambiguity, adaptability and also a bit of courage – not really fashionable skills in today’s business world.

AHRMIO : With the increase in popularity of remote-working teams, how much consideration should organizations place on giving team members from different places and backgrounds some real “training” in cultural issues ?

CU : Working in a virtual team adds another dimension. First, there is a loss of context, which might hinder effective interaction. The potential for misunderstandings is even higher. Second, research shows that multicultural teams tend to perform either better or worse than homogeneous teams, with more performing worse than better. The cultural richness makes the group dynamic much more complex. However, the benefit of multicultural teams is that they provide a greater range of perspectives and options and also create opportunities for greater creativity and innovation. But working in such a team requires intercultural competence. From my experience, training people interculturally allows them to be more effective in working across cultures. But I would like to underline that this does not happen within one day of training. It takes a process-oriented approach and time. I have had teams not talking to each other after co-operating for three weeks because of cultural differences leading to mistrust, misperception, misinterpretation and misunderstandings – blocking co-operation. Finally, in research and literature there are estimates that 40% to 70% of all international projects collapse due to the lack of intercultural competence.  So, yes, I advise companies to invest in their people and their intercultural competence. I personally strongly believe that in today’s global business, one cannot afford to neglect cultural diversity.

christa.uehlinger [at/] linkingpeople.ch


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